Woman About Town


Lisa Hilton at the Venice Biennale

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In an attempt to maximise revenue after a two-year hiatus, the geniuses of the Venice Commune decided to kick off Art Biennale a month early this season, overlapping with another major art event, Homo Faber, on the island of San Giorgio. 

Obviously it poured down, turning the city into a damp Commedia d’arte set off weeping curators, staggering partygoers and implacable boatmen refusing to take anyone anywhere on the perilous spring tides. 

One hundred guests gazed at the cube for a respectful 10 minutes

My week started fairly gently, with a dinner at home for British artist Philip Colbert, in town to stage a stunt for his Lobstars NFT project. An 18-metre inflatable lobster duly set off from Marghera next morning to be floated past San Marco on a barge, but the planning hadn’t extended to finding a boat for event photographer Dave Benett. Cue yours truly collecting Dave from the rioting hordes swarming the Accademia dock and battling with the currents for three hours in my trusty but distinctly unspeedy wooden San Pieroto. 

Dave got his pictures in time for me to make a dishevelled appearance at the British pavilion party for the winning artist, Sonia Boyce, then the NFT pavilion party, then the Sotheby’s party at the Gritti and the after-party at the Bauer … why do I forget that nothing good happens after 2am? 

I was over it at the end of the first day, but the press breakfast at the Sàmi pavilion in Giardini awaited, followed by a dodge through the jammed exhibits in an attempt to actually look at the works. Press week is always a scrum, but this year the art-seekers were more cup final than culture fans — their enthusiasm was as exhausting as it was exhilarating. 

Next day was the Frieze lunch at the Scottish pavilion before dashing home in the downpour to do the canapes for the Magazzino Polignac show, It’s Always Ourselves We Find in the Sea, created by Eighties pop legend Martyn Ware. Because why wouldn’t you want to be hauling a shopping trolley full of stuffed endive in an evening gown and wellington boots over five bridges in a monsoon?

Having admired Martyn’s haunting soundscape, I jumped a ride to the Ca’ Zeno palazzo for curator Alessandro Possati’s dinner in celebration of Niclas Castello with a one-night-only viewing of the artist’s controversial Gold Cube, which is indeed a gold cube. One hundred guests gazed at the cube for a respectful 10 minutes before getting down to some serious dancing — led off by New York art-detective dynamo Gene Seidman, passing through on his way to the London screening of John Boorman’s miniature Renaissance-inspired classic Two Nudes Bathing. Then on to the Ligabue Foundation party on the other side of the Grand Canal for those still standing. 

Happy as Harry

The cube was outshone by the real celebrity of this year’s Biennale, my neighbour Arrigo Cipriani, who celebrated his 90th birthday on 23 April, making him precisely the same age as his legendary Harry’s Bar. 

I see Sig. Cipriani most days, waiting for the vaporetto at Salute en route to his daily inspection of the restaurant and kitchens, always splendidly turned out and keen to discuss the latest ingredients which have arrived from the Cipriani gardens on Sant’Erasmo. 

Last time I lunched with him he was keener to explain the secret to preparing the perfect castraura (castrated) baby artichoke than his birthday plans, but Venice wasn’t prepared to let its most beloved citizen celebrate modestly — he scored the front page of Il Gazzettino, which is how you know you’re really famous.

Venetian Heritage director Toto Bergamo Rossi is an artworld rockstar and his ball in collaboration with Dior at the Fenice Opera House was the social climax of Biennale. The society of year-round residents is tiny and it soon got around that one helmet-haired wannabe hostess was so peeved to find herself excluded from the list that she put about the rumour that the event was cancelled. 

Frantic contessas besieged the Venetian Heritage office to know if they should cancel their couture, but the party very much went ahead. Unabashed, the failed social mountaineer then declared it to have been a chaotic failure, with the wine running out halfway through. 

The sunshine returned as the hordes departed

Catherine Deneuve, Dior designer Maria Grazia Chiuri, Biennale curator Cecilia Alemani and numerous Brandolinis and Casiraghis nonetheless seemed to have had a beano (as did the intrepid gatecrashers still grooving at 6am). You don’t have to go to a ball to admire Venetian Heritage’s achievements — their recent restoration of the magnificently tricksy Codussi staircase at the Scuola Grande San Giovanni d’Evangelista should be on everyone’s list for future Venice visits.

Good times, bad Times

Someone else who made themselves unpopular during Biennale week was the self-styled “millennial” journalist who published a frankly racist article in the Times describing her two-month sojourn in the city. Crass generalisations about Italians are apparently still permissible, hence many Venetians were surprised to learn that they live in an unreal city where no-one has a proper job.

Had the writer actually met any of the refuse collectors, schoolteachers, fishermen or vaporetto drivers who keep the place going she might have thought differently, but those who encountered her say that her Venetian curiosity was, in true millennial style, confined to the screen of her phone. 

The sunshine returned as the hordes departed and Venice Palaces founder Michele Marcello organised a survivors’ party on the lagoon for anyone who couldn’t stand another sight of a radically challenging installation. Fritto misto at Malamocco on Lido followed by a gentle drift home through the Tiepolo-pink afternoon reminded me that (to quote Jan Morris) “to live in Venice is one of the supreme pleasures of life”. Even amidst the Biennale frenzy, it’s joyful to see that promise fulfilled once more

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